The Story of a Story

My character pic for Christian Avery, hero of In Your Arms.  Yes, it's Robin Thicke.

My character pic for Christian Avery, hero of In Your Arms. Yes, it’s Robin Thicke.

This is the story of two characters and a setting who knew what they wanted and one author who had to be convinced that they were right. Yes, it is a true story filled with drama, false-starts, gnashing of teeth, and eventually acceptance and resolve. It is the story of how a novel gets written.

See, for me, writing a novel is something that just happens. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone ask me “how do you write a story anyhow?” That usually falls in line with the whole “how do you come up with your ideas?” question to. The fact of the matter is, it’s like breathing to me. You can stop and think about it and eventually puzzle out how you breathe enough to explain it to someone, but it’s almost a pointless exercise in words. I feel the same way about writing.

This latest novel of mine, however, has been a unique experience. I always knew that In Your Arms would be the third book of my Montana Romance series and that it would involve the relationship between Christian Avery, Justice of the Peace of Cold Springs, Montana and a teacher, Lily Singer, who is a Native American woman that was taken from her tribe as a small child and raised at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. I always knew that Christian is one of those incredibly confident men who feels responsible for everything to the point of being controlling and arrogant. I also knew that Lily is equally strong and authoritative on the outside but lost and aching on the inside because her childhood experience at the Indian School robbed her of her identity without truly giving her a place in the white man’s world. This is what I knew about my characters.

It’s extremely important to know who your characters are and to know as much about their personalities and how they would react in any given situation. In fact, I would say this is the most important aspect of any writing experience. If you’re writing character-driven stories, like romance, you need to have as firm a grasp on those characters as you can. They need to live and breathe. You need to know what they look like, how they move, what their facial tics are, if they have any habits, like biting nails or sighing too much. They are the heart of your story.

Fortunately, I’ve had Christian and Lily down for years.

The plot, however…. Ah, therein lay the problem.

I knew before I started this book that I wanted it to be about belonging. I wanted to write about finding your place and becoming a part of a community. Christian over-identifies himself with Cold Springs to the point where it interferes with his judgment and he interferes with people’s lives. Lily doesn’t feel like she belongs anywhere, even in her own skin. I knew that. I knew that I wanted to address the problems that the Native Americans experienced after the “Cowboys and Indians” part of history. And I knew I wanted to have an election as the focal point of the story.

Well, I was wrong.

A passible character pic for the heroine of In Your Arms, Lily Singer

A passible character pic for the heroine of In Your Arms, Lily Singer

I started writing the book, intent on centering it around that election for mayor. Christian can’t not run for mayor when the issue comes up. He ends up embroiled in a political show-down with the antagonist, a newbie to Cold Springs named Samuel Kuhn, who owns a shop that is in direct competition with Michael West’s store. Piece of cake, right? Elections make for great drama, so the story should have flowed.

Well, it didn’t. Not only did it not flow, it was like pulling teeth to make my word count goal every day. I struggled, I fought, I wrote a few brilliant scenes here and there, but mostly I just wanted to punch people. Sucky first draft? Yes. But promising. It’s not like the entire thing was so rank it had to be thrown out with the bath water. I really enjoyed the chemistry between Christian and Lily, the “I can’t stand you but I still want to be in your pants” energy as they clashed over issues at the school. Overall, though, it wasn’t working.

Then life stuff happened. I had to put the book down for *gasp* two whole days! And when I came back to it, the idea of writing this election just about made me weep. So I asked myself, “What would this plot look like if I took the election out?”

Guess what? Everything clicked. I whipped out my handy pen and paper and started writing what the plot would be without the election. I started at the beginning, incorporating the scenes I’d already written and noting how I could tweak some scenes that were heavily election based. I reached the point where I had stopped writing and continued on with the plot for the rest of the novel. I scribbled madly away until I got to the climax—which would be more or less the same—and sped on to the endgame.

It worked. All of it. The entire thing flowed from the pen and onto the page. Why? Because I stopped trying to tell my characters what to do and listened to what they wanted to do instead.

Characters will tell you things. They will explain their entire life stories to you if you are patient enough with them. They will help you write the book.

I’m not finished with the first draft of In Your Arms yet, but I’m closer than I was before. There will be a lot of work on the rewriting/revision end of things, but between you and me, that’s one of the most fun parts of being a writer. I’m confident that I’ll have a great story when all is said and done, thanks to Christian and Lily.


Tantoo Cardinal, an actress I love and adore and on whom I modeled the character of Lily.

Tantoo Cardinal, an actress I love and adore and on whom I modeled the character of Lily.

Side Note About Character Pics: I have not only known Christian and Lily for years, I’ve known what they look like. So imagine my surprise when I saw the above pic of Robin Thicke (which is copyright free, btw). This is EXACTLY what I have imagined Christian looking like for years! As for Lily, I always had the amazing actress Tantoo Cardinal as the template for her. But as you might guess, most of the roles she’s played and images of her have been when she was older. I was searching online for a younger picture of her when the above picture of Tinsel Korey (who is actually Indian Indian and not Native American … and also apparently in the Twilight movies) popped up. And I thought “Yeah, that’ll do”. It’s not as perfect as Robin Thicke cast as Christian, but it’s close.


12 thoughts on “The Story of a Story

  1. Great post Merry-although I personally think you just wanted an excuse to post a picture of your favorite hottie-Robin Thicke. Can’t say I blame you. 🙂 Tweeted

  2. Mmm, Robin Thicke! His picture kept distracting me from reading. 😉 I always enjoy hearing authors talk about their characters taking the story in a different direction than planned. It seems that authors cannot go wrong when they listen to the characters & let them take the lead.
    Great post, Merry!

  3. I actually know an elderly woman who was taken from her family when she was a little girl and “civilized.” What an ugly time in American history. And ugly isn’t anywhere strong enough a word.

    I’m very excited to read your book! Sounds like something I wish I had written!

  4. I loved this post, and so identify with it. The minute I try to direct my characters, the story stops. Sometimes I have to step back from what I want and just let the story tell it’s self. tweeted and shared.

  5. Great post, Merry. Isn’t it amazing what happens when we listen to our characters? In looking at the pictures of Robin Thicke and Tinsel Korey, I can totally see them as Christian and Lily.

  6. Merry, what a great post. Sometimes it so hard to really sit and listen to our characters, but in the end when we do the story is so much more fulfilling. Looking forward to reading it. 🙂

  7. Excellent post, Merry! I sometimes forget that when the story feels more like work than fun, it means I need to stop and re-evaluate! I just learned that lesson (again!) and now that I changed directions a bit, the story is flowing like butter! Such a great feeling!

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